WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s decision to send up to 300 U.S. military advisers to Iraq is a limited move to stiffen the beleaguered Iraqi government and army against an Islamist extremist-led revolt that reflects the president’s aversion and the American public to U.S. intervention in the sectarian bloodletting.
Obama "is trying to minimize U.S. engagement and that’s not surprising. His predilection is not to get involved," said Daniel Serwer, a Middle East Institute fellow and a former senior U.S. diplomat who was involved in a review of Iraq war strategy for the Bush administration.
Yet by dispatching U.S. military advisers, intensifying the collection and sharing of intelligence with the Iraqi government and keeping open the option of launching U.S. airstrikes against the insurgents, Obama risks getting sucked deeper into a new Middle East maelstrom.
"The slippery slope concern is a very valid concern, and some of what we are seeing in the president’s policy reflects that that is very much a concern inside the administration," said Paul Pillar, a former chief U.S. intelligence analyst for the Middle East.
Obama’s announcement on Thursday came amid growing pressure on him to act.
In Iraq, Sunni Muslim fighters led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a brutal militant group on the U.S. terrorism list, pressed an advance on Baghdad that threatens to break the oil-rich country apart. In Washington, Republicans stepped up rhetorical assaults on Obama for what they decry as his feckless policies on the wars in Syria and Iraq and the Russia-backed uprising in Ukraine.
"The president has weakened the national security posture of the United States," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declared during a series of coordinated Republican speeches on the Senate floor.
Yet only hours after Obama spoke at the White House, a new Reuters-IPSOS poll reaffirmed that a majority of Americans oppose intervention of any kind on behalf of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim-dominated government and army.
The distaste for intervention is in line with Obama’s own views.
He campaigned for the presidency in 2008 on a vow to complete a pullout of U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, which he upheld. And in outlining his national security strategy in a May 28 speech at the U.S. Military Academy, Obama made clear that the U.S. military should only get involved in overseas crises that put American lives and interests directly at risk.
"When crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher," he said. "Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action."
He added that the U.S. must "broaden its tools to include diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law and, if just, necessary and effective, military action."
The crisis in Iraq, however, represents a foreign policy conundrum that doesn’t fit neatly with Obama’s strategy.
No U.S. allies or partners have offered to join the United States in helping to bolster the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki - Obama is dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry this weekend to Europe to try to drum up that support - while the only regional power that is backing Baghdad is the biggest U.S. rival in the Middle East, Shiite-dominated Iran.
U.S. diplomacy failed to stop al-Maliki from repressing minority Sunnis and using his posts as prime minister, interior minister and defense minister to place favored Shiites in powerful positions to the exclusion of Sunnis and minority Kurds. As a result of his sectarian policies, disaffected Sunni tribes and former members of the late dictator Saddam Hussein’s security forces joined the ISIL-led revolt.
Finally, the billions of dollars invested over the years by the United States to build Iraq’s capacity to fight terrorism went down the drain in a matter of hours last week as tens of thousands of Iraqi troops fled Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, shedding their uniforms and arms.
In bolting, the army ceded much of northwestern Iraq to ISIL and its allies, unleashing a new flood of refugees in a country already struggling to cope with an influx of Syrians who fled the civil war in their country.
The army’s flight also allowed the Kurds to take control of the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other territory that they have coveted as part of a long dreamed of independent country of Kurdistan, and raising the specter of a three-way partition of Iraq that the U.S. occupation sought to avert.
Now, ISIL is the world’s richest, most powerful terrorist group, having seized hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and untold millions in U.S.-supplied weapons and equipment, vastly increasing the threat it poses.
The threat by ISIL, whose ranks are filled with thousands of foreigners, including extremists from North America and Europe, also grew as the group expanded its territorial holdings, which already included large swaths of neighboring Syria, where it maintains terrorist training camps.
Obama’s decision to send military advisers appears driven by the twin dangers of Iraq’s disintegration, which would further destabilize the region, and terrorist attacks on U.S. and European targets by ISIL. He also used his announcement to warn al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders to put aside their differences and forge a united front against the uprising.
"The threat of ISIL is really serious, so he can’t just sit around," said Rami Khouri, the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. "I think he understands that the Iraqis can’t do this on their own."
But at the same time, Khouri continued, Obama acted with considerable restraint, saying his decision to send military advisers amounted to "essentially minimal intervention to make sure the U.S. stays out."
While Obama said the United States is prepared "to take targeted and precise military action if we conclude the situation on the ground requires it," staging airstrikes effectively would align the United States with the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that killed hundreds of U.S. troops and that al-Maliki has called back into service and has rearmed.
Some of Obama’s top advisers are reluctant to take that step.
"There has to be a reason for those (airstrikes)," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a Senate hearing on Wednesday. "There has to be an objective. Where do you go with those? What does it do to move the effort down the road for a political solution?"
Moreover, more overt U.S. intervention could end any chance that Sunni leaders who remain loyal to the government might cooperate in joining a national unity government, with or without al-Maliki.
Finally, intervening forcefully on the side of the Shiite-dominated government could be seen in the region as an alignment with Iran, seriously angering Saudi Arabia and other Sunni governments and risking a violent backlash by Sunni extremists elsewhere in the region.